Lessons on the Middle East from unlikely sources

Aaaaah, summer. Time to lie back in a hammock with a cold drink and contemplate blood, devastation, death, war and horror with the aid of a few good books. Like Edward Luttwak’s 1976 The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire. I stumbled upon it in a used-book store and bought it, intrigued that an acute observer of Soviet affairs should have tackled this subject. Like Luttwak, I happen to think Rome is cool. It offers many insights into good government (the Empire was surprisingly successful for surprisingly long) and bad (power-mad emperors and the simply mad kind) and the larger cultural benefits, and temptations, of wealth and leisure. But Rome, and Luttwak’s book, are especially interesting because they are removed from contemporary polemics but clearly related to current problems.

Rome’s rulers had to wage an essentially indefinite war against forces of chaos that could be defeated in detail but not en masse. There would always be new barbarians appearing out of the mist on the other side of the Danube and, Luttwak notes, watching and learning dangerous lessons from Rome. The American political class is prone to the delusion that wars are either won quickly and overwhelmingly or else botched (our own political class suffers the even worse delusion that they have only to say “Hey everybody, play nice” and all that mean old war will stop and they will win another Nobel Peace Prize). We could usefully imitate the Romans’ strategic and tactical patience, especially given the chronic problems of unrest that they faced in the Tigris-Euphrates region and in and around Judea. But there’s more to life than statecraft … provided you don’t bungle the latter too badly.

So I’ve also been rereading C.S. Lewis’s “science fiction” trilogy whose first two volumes feature, respectively, a visit to the old world of Malacandra (Mars) where the Fall of Man (actually of Alien) never happened then a new one (Perelandra, or Venus) where it hasn’t yet. Lewis’s beautifully creative geography of his alien worlds somehow distracted some people (including me as a teen) from the essentially theological topic: First, what a culture might be like if there were no original sin, and second, how sin might be explained to, and imagined by, someone who had never felt it.

I do not recommend these books as “escapism” in the pejorative sense. I’m not suggesting you avoid engagement in public affairs. Nor am I trying to pose as well-rounded; I was but exercise and diet fixed it. I’m suggesting that good books cast light surprisingly far beyond their ostensible topics. For instance, the point of Lewis’s fictional devices in the Perelandra series is to help you, if you dare, to compare your own actions and thoughts to a profoundly naïve, and naively profound, standard. Including what side you take in the Middle East and what you then do about it.

You may object that neither you nor I am in a position to do much of anything about the Middle East. But what could any one person do in the Second World War? You still have to try. I’ve warned before about living through history and thinking it’s current events. An additional virtue of the second book in Lewis’s trilogy, Perelandra, is its portrayal of a hero obliged to undertake a task for which he is preposterously illsuited and under-sized. Isn’t private as well as public life full of them?

Turning from my books to the newspapers, I see where Condoleezza Rice just said we need a new Middle East. To paraphrase Marvin the Paranoid Android, “Oh no, not another one.” Wasn’t the first bad enough? Besides, a new Jerusalem I’ve heard of, but I seem to have mislaid my “New Regions for Dummies” where it says how you make those. On the other hand, there are lots of good books on the Middle East, from Bernard Lewis’s The Middle East to Paul Johnson’s A History of the Jews to Conor Cruise O’Brien’s surprisingly strong history of Israel, The Siege. (You can also read the Hamas Charter if you have a strong stomach). But my last Middle East in Flames book club selection is Raymond Chandler.

His heroes, such as Philip Marlowe, would know how to handle Hezbollah terrorists. Two slugs for himself (whiskey) and three more for them (lead). And in his 1944 essay “The Simple Art of Murder” Chandler wrote: “But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” Chandler was personally a bit tarnished by booze. But it’s still very good advice.

Including in the Middle East.

In my last column I misstated the time between Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, completed in September 2005, and Ariel Sharon’s incapacitating stroke, in January 2006.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson